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Is B.C.'s COVID-19 messaging getting through?

Last Updated Apr 13, 2021 at 7:01 pm PDT

Summary

Public policy expert says B.C. needs to do more to try to give people as much certainty as possible in COVID messaging

Mixed messaging, uncertainty from leaders don't help calm anxieties amid pandemic, expert says

Expert says there needs to be continued, strong messaging that outlines the lowest risks

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – As COVID-19 cases continue to surge across the country, B.C.’s top doctor is once again pleading with people to stay local.

That means avoiding all non-essential travel, and even staying in your own neighbourhood if possible.

But how effective has Dr. Bonnie Henry’s messaging been?

UBC public policy expert Heidi Tworek feels the provincial government needs to be clear and strong in its directives.

“I think the messaging is causing some nervousness and anxiety for some people as they see the cases rising,” she explained, adding there are different reactions based on demographics.

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However, she notes there is a particular area the province might be able to improve on.

“What are the potential measures that might be put in place depending on what it is that we see happening? Whether it’s cases going up, whether it’s the type of case that we’re seeing, hospitalizations, and so forth, just so that people have a little bit more of an understanding of what they could plan for, what might be coming down the pike,” she said.

“I think there’s a lot of desire for a bit more of a roadmap of how things might unfold if the case numbers continue to rise.”

Clearer COVID-19 messaging

On Monday, Henry admitted B.C. was in its third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, with pressure building on Lower Mainland hospitals. The provincial health officer hammered her point in her latest update, urging British Columbians to stay local and to do their part to break the chain of transmission of the coronavirus.

“This is, I don’t need to say, our third wave, and knowing this, we need to chart our best path forward to manage this wave in British Columbia,” Henry said.

Hospital ICUs still have room but things are getting tight, with surgical capacity now being affected.

Tworek says we’ve seen people defy orders, and also others who believe public health guidelines don’t go far enough.

There’s also the sense of mixed messaging some people are feeling.

“Because a few weeks ago the premier had said we were going in the right direction and then, of course, just a couple of weeks after that, we get a shutdown of indoor dining, and Whistler, and so on and so forth,” Tworek told NEWS 1130, highlighting the recent controversy around Premier John Horgan’s messaging to young people.

“I think we also have some resentment and upset from younger people feeling like they’ve been blamed and wanting to have a sense of well, why is there actually transmission? What’s really going on in that age group of 20 to 39? … And wanting to get a bit more of that data rather than being blamed and shamed,” she added.

B.C.’s has broken records for its daily case counts over the past couple of weeks, with this past weekend also marking highs.

‘Meeting people where they’re at’

In addition to giving people a sense of what might be coming, Tworek believes the province could benefit from “meeting people where they’re at.”

That means utilizing tools, like social media channels, to get messaging out in ways that make sense to people.

“Thinking about the different languages one might use. Another would be trying to have two-way conversations with people if there’s capacity, so Facebook lives or other things to answer people’s questions. Another thing would be to avoid the blame and shame games, because that in long-run can really undermine people’s desire to adhere, but also to participate in things like contact tracing or even to get tested, because they worry if they have contracted COVID that they might be then blamed for having it. That can really discourage people from wanting to get tested,” Tworek explained.

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Finally, she believes there needs to be continued strong messaging that outlines the lowest risks.

“What are, as Bonnie Henry puts it, the layers of protection, right? That gathering outdoors really is so much safer than gathering indoors and continuing to really give people those messages as clearly as possible and explaining why that is the case,” Tworek said, adding while this messaging isn’t new, some people may not have gotten it yet.

She notes it may seem trivial to those who’ve already heard these messages loud and clear for Henry to keep repeating them, but Tworek says some people may not have gotten it yet.

Henry is expected to lay out the latest provincial COVID modelling this week.

-With files from Denise Wong